The whole reason for this trip to Belgium and France was to trace the route my hero, Rohan de Brancion, would have followed in 1146 when he left his home in the hillside village of Brancion in central Burgundy and headed north for Ghent. After facing initial opposition, he (or rather others more persuasive than he) convinced his robber baron father, Lord Bernard de Brancion, to allow him, an illegitimate son, to undergo training to become a knight at the court of Lord Bernard’s powerful brother-in-law, Thierry, Count of Flanders. This in itself was unusual given Rohan’s base birth, but it was not unheard of – there were many famous early medieval bastards who rose to high positions – Duke William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, was a bastard. Rules about these matters became more rigid in the 14th century, but still this was a pretty big deal for Rohan and would have put considerable pressure on him to prove himself worthy.
I have been making this trip in reverse, starting in Ghent and ending up in Brancion, which is only a few kilometers northeast of the great Benedictine Abbey of Cluny where Rohan had his fateful encounter with his first love, Piers de Charny, shortly before leaving for Ghent. From here it is nearly 700 kilometers to Ghent – a non trivial undertaking for a 16-year-old accompanied only by his groom and childhood friend, Godric the Saxon. They were of course on horseback, but still travel in the 12th century was a daunting affair, and considering the hazards (more on this later), it is truly amazing how many people undertook these long distance treks – think Ghent to Jerusalem on horseback or foot. Or, as an equally terrifying alternative, by leaky boat, with minimal ability to steer and no tools to navigate beyond the naked eye! You’ve got to admire their guts, if not their judgment. But then as Barbara Tuchman so astutely observed in her fine book on the 14th century, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century , when the average age of those involved in these adventures was about nineteen, judgment was not a quality in large supply!
Although large parts of the land were still covered with dense forests in those days, often infested with outlaws and desperate folk, and into which no one would venture except at his peril, there were of course time-honored routes travelers could follow. After the first Millennium, travelers increasingly did follow these routes. First of all, there were the natural routes carved out by rivers. “Follow the rivers” Bernard yells to his son in a parting piece of advice. The trouble is there are so many of them, so one had to know which one would get you where and in which direction it was flowing. On this trip we actually followed
the Seine from Troyes in Champagne to its source near the Abbey Saint Seine in northern Burgundy – quite a mind-bending experience to see this little dribble emerging from the ground and then recall the majestic and mighty River that rolls under the great bridges of Paris to the sea.
So we have rivers to follow, and then there were those amazing road builders, the Romans, who knew that all roads lead to Rome, and the straighter the better. Even if their technology and cohesive organization was lost during the so-called Dark Ages, their roads remained. (I should qualify that comment by noting that the term “Dark Ages” has been much disputed of late, but most of us continue to suspect that somehow things got a lot messier after the Romans stopped running things – that would be from about the 4th to 8th century C.E. when famously the monasteries alone – and perhaps only the Irish, per Thomas Cahill – “saved” civilization. There were also in this part of France what studies on the subject refer to as “pistes Gauloise” – paths trodden for time out of mind by the native people. And then by the 12th century certainly there were what were called “routes Saint Jacques” – pilgrim routes, especially in France from Paris to Compostela and back. These typically would follow routes marked by abbeys and sacred pilgrimage sites such as Chartres, Reims, Troyes, Vézelay, Cluny and so on to the south where pilgrims and travelers alike would be assured of hospitality in the form of a meal and bed for the night, as well as care if they were sick. And so while our young hero would encounter many challenges on his way from Brancion to Ghent, he would not have been entirely without guidance and support. Finally, we mustn’t forget that in spite of everything people loved to travel then as now, and so the best idea was to link up with a company of fellow travelers on the way – and exchange stories to while away the time (no getting around that one: it did take a very long time.) Back to you Geoffrey Chaucer!
My estimate is that it would have taken about a month in good weather conditions to travel the distance between Brancion and Ghent on horseback figuring that you could probably cover between 20 to 30 miles a day. The good news for our 12th century travelers was that most of the terrain was relatively manageable. Certainly there were some rolling hills in Burgundy and the Aube valley of lower Champagne, but once you had passed Troyes and headed north towards Reims and thence into what were justly called The Low Countries, the going was pretty easy – provided of course you managed to figure out how and where to cross the interminable rivers that crisscross that marshy land. Yes – motorways, bridges, trains, planes and cars have their advantages, and even at a fairly contemplative pace I am after all only 10 days on Rohan’s trail, ready to go home!